Yesterday I finished reading Railsea by China Mieville, and it’s left me with rustling, unquiet feelings. I love Mieville, and I’ve been rapidly working my way through his entire canon since I first read Kraken about three years ago. Reading him is a little like trying to keep level footing while standing on an accordion. He is adept at drawing richly detailed, slickly un-right worlds. The setting and the story expand and contract beneath your feet with a speed and grace that’s both wonderful and nauseating. There are a number of themes and conceits that he relies on consistently, but his main meat is hybridization. Combined words, enmeshed bodies, physical worlds that are built on a sort of bio-steampunk ethos. I’ve written before that every Mieville novel starts in a place that seems familiar and easy to follow, but quickly rotates the camera and lets you see that you are in fact standing on the ceiling. Railsea is true to that pattern.
The basic premise is a world in which railroads are so prevalent that they’re like a body of water. There’s a permanent tangled network of ties and tracks, so thick that all their terminology and lore are language we use for oceans and sailing. Insects and small burrowing creatures have evolved to staggering, predatory size and are hunted by trainsfolk for commerce and, sometimes, for glory and revenge. There’s a very heavy cord of Moby Dick running throughout. Mieville’s books are themselves hybridizations: tangled, looping, referential cultural markers that make use of material from dozens of other literary sources. I’ve never come up with a word to adequately describe this. It’s not delicate enough to be called literary allusion, not is it anything so sly as to be described as theft. He just straight up uses obvious pieces of what has gone before to make his own thing. Sort of like what would happen if you could build an entirely new house using pieces from existing houses, without actually removing anything from the existing houses. Look, the foundation: that’s Melville. The doorframe is the Strugatsky brothers, that paint is a color called Penelope Lively. The result is a proper Painted Lady, but it’s Mieville’s house, and you couldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s.
This particular house is full of monsters, civilizations and un-civilizations, and people who are looking for something. It’s a sailing story, all pitch and roll, and the hero is trying to find his feet. He doesn’t know what’s true, and so he doesn’t know what he wants. So he keeps pushing and pushing at the edges of what is assumed about the world, looking for what’s under the wallpaper. He starts in little ways, like saving a bird from a cockfight even though he knows it will enrage his crewmates, and keeps picking at those elusive things that spur him to action until eventually he finds himself with people and a story that fire his engine and make him move.
I enjoyed Railsea less than any of the other Mieville books I’ve read. There was no shortage of beautiful words or memorable passages, but I never fell all the way into it. In part, I was irritated by an of-the-moment tone in several places that didn’t serve the story and kind of slapped me out of it when I came across them. It had the usual rhythmic, wordy beat that all his writing does, but it seemed more carelessly executed than usual; less durable, somehow. And for the first time, the world he described was one I just couldn’t cognitively accept. Tell me about a world where houses contract technological viruses through flawed spoken language and become biologically ill, and I am right with you. A city that is actually two cities existing in the same physical space and within plain view of one another, but operating as separate entities with blinders on? Absolutely. But show me a world where railroads built hundreds of years in the past are so thick on the ground that they are like water, an infrastructure so old that it’s spawned the vague religions of prehistory, that is governed but not maintained by any municipality and is assumed to be repaired by angels – here you have lost me. It’s choppy. This world never felt real. That explains my general dissatisfaction with the book. My specific itchy feelings about it stem from the religious element in Railsea.
Every one of Mieville’s novels deals with religion, or with cultural assumptions so ingrained that they resemble religion. (He also has kind of a thing about angels, and the myriad ways he’s made them is strange and wonderful.) The religious elements in his books are viewed with a very wide lens, an anthropological pin in the map of the world he’s writing. There’s always a wide range of established beliefs, levels of faith, and degrees of action based on that faith (or lack of it). He’s very effective at using the language of religion to establish the boundaries that are about to challenge his characters (and thereby challenging the language of faith and the nature of belief in every story he tells, whether that faith is in something supernatural or in the accepted order of things). Even when religion results in very concrete actions (basically all of Kraken), the belief itself is a fluid thing. It grows and shrinks, it flows into other forms of thought, it remakes itself in insidious ways, it drains down between the cracks in the concrete and swells back up through the kitchen sink: it is alive.
The belief system of Railsea is finite and brittle. It has the language of the supernatural, it’s acted upon as supernatural, but in the end it’s purely mechanical. The taboos of this world are misunderstood words, the gods are machines set in motion so long ago that no one remembers what they are. The protagonist pushes further and further out against the vague chittering warnings of religious faith until it dissipates like so much fog.
I grew up in a very religious home, but have spent the better part of my adult life pushing against the lore and the language and the assumptions of that faith. This was not a go-to-church-on-Sunday-and-make-the-best-of-it thing; it was an all or nothing thing. As an adult, I see a lot of things in that life that were unwell, and I’ve fought to get away from them. But I can’t ever shake my belief in God entirely, and I’m not sure I want to. What I do want is to know if what belief I have is real or just a habit that’s so old it’s in my cells. I’m forever taking that rusty habit out and examining it in the light to see how sound it is, but I never have an answer to that question. I’m never going to have an answer to that question. Living with that kind of complex uncertainty about what makes us ourselves is just part of being human. What made me uncomfortable about Railsea was imagining a world where it was possible to push on the last door of belief and see it evaporate. Where you could know for certain that your deities were mechanical creations with concrete financial goals, and your holy texts were simply misunderstood place names. Hoping for that kind of certainty, fearing that kind of certainty.
I don’t think think it’s necessarily a bad thing to feel my uncomfortable places so acutely, but I wish the book that did it had been better.